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Pierluigi Collina.

Football is played between two teams, two coaches and two sets of fans. However, there’s one singular figure who stands proudly in the middle, mediates the game and has the power to send multi-millionaire athletes to their dressing rooms in a tantrum. The referee. 

The match could not be played without them and thier assistants. And a referee who stands tall above the rest is Pierluigi Collina. Widely considered to be the greatest football referee of all time. The Italian started his referee career in 1977 and within 3 years was officiating the highest level or regional matches. 

Collina is Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ incarnate; the bald head, the steely blue bulging eyes that would elicit an icy stare, which could look into the very soul of a player and make them wither in his presence. Collina contradicted the accepted catechism of the referee by the players. The man from Bologna would be seen barking instructions to players who stepped out of line. Perhaps the most telling contradiction of all was that the Italian was on the front foot intimidating players and, if necessary, physically moving them backwards. They were scenes unlike any other witnessed before or since on a football pitch at the highest level.

The most appropriate way to sum up Collina’s legacy is to quote fellow referee Graham Poll. During preparation for the 2002 World Cup fixture between Japan and Turkey, Poll, who was the game’s fourth official, commented:

“He drew their line-ups on a board, he told us how they would play, who the fiery characters were, where the likely flashpoints would be, what each assistant might expect to happen on his part of the pitch. He covered everything. It was incredible. It was preparation to the nth degree, and furthermore, he wasn’t wrong.” He rarely was. 

In 2011, Collina was admitted to Italian football’s Hall of Fame. This is an honour which is all the more incredible when put into context by the fact that he was admitted before AC Milan’s legendary full-back Paolo Maldini and their 1982 World Cup-winning captain Dino Zoff, both of whom were inducted a year after.

Since his retirement, Collina has gone on to become a non-paid consultant to the Italian Football Referees Association and a member of UEFA’s Referees Committee. The man with an almost alien appearance had the aura of a being from another world. It’s as if every other referee who came before or since is compared to the mild-mannered Italian with the steely core, and so far every one of them has come up short. Such was the esteem with which every professional player held him, he is still the only referee who has been asked by a player – David Beckham – to swap shirts. 

Excerpt credit: Stuart Horsfield